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“If my future were determined just by my performance on a standardized test, I wouldn’t be here. I guarantee you that.”
—Michelle Obama (1964 –), American lawyer and former First Lady of the United States
What do you do with a problem like the TOEFL iBT test?
For worse or for better, the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) remains the most popular standard assessment of English for international students. This is especially true for those planning on attending American colleges and universities. As a result, many international ESOL (English Speakers of Other Languages) students often adopt the TOEFL test scores as a self-assessment, too.
Of course, standardized exams – including the computer-based TOEFL-iBT – remain unfair to students prone to extreme cases of test anxiety. They also assume a false equivalency between responses to a computer and responses to actual, live conversations with individuals. (This difference is why I strongly believe the IELTS remains a more authentic test of speaking skills.)
TOEFL Scores Matter
Yet the imperfect TOEFL remains part of the current English learning experience for millions. Standardized test scores often make the job of university admissions committees much easier; when people have hundreds (or thousands) of applications to sift through, abstract numbers can provide a reassuring, seemingly objective depiction of student potential. To paraphrase and distort a classic Winston Churchill quote, “standardized testing is the worst possible form of applicant evaluation, except for all the rest.”
Thus, many students, even some graduate students that I currently teach in the United States , often seek to improve their TOEFL scores. My standard advice on the speaking section has been practice speaking to your computer. Time yourself, paraphrase, don’t parrot question, listen carefully, and videotape your responses. Giving your opinion and providing a short reason in less than 30 seconds remains a practical everyday life skill, and practice can help improve TOEFL test scores too.
Listening to a Friend – and TOEFL Expert
Sometimes friends can help. Brent Warner, an assistant professor of ESL at Irvine Valley College and a good friend of many years, remains my go-to expert on TOEFL. Between preparing Japanese students for the TOEFL for over 7 years, and dealing with the associated headaches and desires on a regular basis, he has gained considerable practical experience in an area I prefer to avoid.
Brent is also the author of a useful primer on TOEFL called How to Pass the TOEFL iBT Test: Know What to Expect to Improve Your Score. I once asked him a simple question: “What else should I recommend English students do to improve their speaking scores?”
Know the TOEFL Test: Structure Matters
“Know the TOEFL test; structure matters”, summarizes Brent’s advice. “And read my book.”
In his straightforward eBook, Brent argues that understanding the structure allows test takers more time to think about the content of the questions rather than trying to decipher “the best way” to answer. As an English teacher who has never taken the test, I found this information quite illuminating. Never forget that the TOEFL iBT remains a test of both knowledge about the TOEFL iBT as well as English.
Tips for the TOEFL Speaking Section
More specifically, Brent wisely emphasizes that the speaking sections of the TOEFL test remain limited – at best – when compared with natural, authentic communication. After all, who watches the clock while talking to recorded voices on a computer and pretends this is a natural conversation?
“When the test gives an independent question prompt, you are expected to give an answer. While this is very common in standardized tests, the fact that there is no response may put many testers off-balance,” Brent warns. “In the real world, even if we are speaking into the screen of our phones, we can reasonably expect an indication that we are being listened to, and some sort of positive feedback that lets us know we are on the right track.” *
However, it’s worth remembering the TOEFL does have a human component, despite appearances. “A light and breezy style focusing on being easy to understand rather than structurally perfect may provide a much welcome relief to the test grader,” Brent suggests. “Remember that they may have been listening to similar answers for hours before they get to your response, so anything you can do to stand out from the crowd will only help you.”
While I remain skeptical of the TOEFL’s validity as an authentic assessment, Brent’s ebook demonstrates how test takers can regain some control. His advice provides understanding on what Educational Testing Services (ETS) consider a “high quality” answer. As a result, the stress and confusion surrounding this controversial, highly influential test are considerably reduced.
I like Brent’s sensibility and trust his professional judgements, especially on the TOEFL’s strengths and limitations. Ambitious international students might also find his eBook a valuable resource as they seek their target scores. Some problems, like standardized exams, are best handled by preparation and practice. And while practice seldom makes perfection, it does make progress. Students want progress toward their target TOEFL score too.
What advice to you give your English students on preparing for the TOEFL iBT? How do you balance teaching test prep with authentic conversation skills?
Looking for more TOEFL guidance? The Studying English unit from Creating Compelling Conversations: Reproducible Search and Share Activities for English Teachers is now available on Teachers Pay Teachers. This activity collection includes two webquests that address the TOEFL speaking and writing sections. Students are asked to independently research TOEFL tips and share with their classmates, providing fresh perspectives and wider array of answers for those with test anxiety. Other worksheets focus on the IELTS and SAT tests too.